Undocumented workers and agriculture: no easy answers

New report looks at undocumented farm labor in the Midwest. NFU president explains where things stand in lameduck Congress.

A new report delves into the U.S. agriculture sector’s reliance on immigrant labor.  Authored by Stephanie Mercier, a former chief economist for the Senate Agriculture Committee, “Employing Agriculture: How the Midwest Farm and Food Sector Relies on Immigrant Labor” looks at how the 12-state region’s agriculture labor force impacts the region.

“The Midwest region’s farm labor needs differ from those of other regions, most notably access to a supply of year-round migrant farmworkers to support labor-intensive dairy and livestock farming,” writes Mercier. “With geographic, bureaucratic, and visa restrictions hindering access to this workforce, reform is critical for the continued health of agriculture in the Midwest and across the country. A continued stalemate on immigration reform could hurt US specialty crop, livestock, and dairy production; increase consumer costs; result in greater offshore production of food; and, in turn, impact related American jobs in transportation, sales, and marketing -- and the country’s global competitiveness.”

In early December, Delta Farm Press spoke with Roger Johnson, president of National Farmers Union about the immigration situation and how President Obama’s recent announcement about undocumented workers -- expected to affect some five million people – will affect U.S. agriculture. Among his comments:

On the Obama plan…

“Our hope is that (Obama’s proposal) will simply put some pressure on Congress to act. All the information leading up to the announcement suggest that there can’t be a special carve-out for agriculture.

“The Senate bill that passed – by a strong bipartisan vote – did provide some carve-outs for agriculture. But they’re required to be changed legislatively.

“The most the President can do is take a bit of pressure off to provide some discretion in terms of enforcement. That’s pretty much what was announced.

“Ultimately, the solution for agriculture needs to come from Congress. That’s been known for many, many years. Congress just needs to act.”

Regarding Congress, has the needle moved at all since Obama’s announcement?

“I doubt very much that the lame duck will deal with this. I don’t think that’s ever been in the cards. It took the Senate a fair amount of time and a lot of deliberation to pass their comprehensive bill.

“The House never really engaged on it and refused to take up the Senate bill. All they did was have a series of hearings and never passed anything that could be conferenced with the Senate. So, I think the House is a long way from getting the buy-in they need in order to pass a bill. It’s impossible that will happen during the lame duck. They need months and months to craft something.”

Major overhaul

What about the H2A and H2B programs? Does that system need to be scrapped for farmworkers and something new put in its place?

“That system needs a major overhaul. That’s pretty much what the Senate bill concluded.

“Most of the agricultural players have recommended major modifications. It’s poorly designed to work well for agriculture. If it isn’t scrapped, it needs a major overhaul.”

The claim is the Obama plan will affect some 250,000 farmworkers. But there are estimates there are 500,000 to 1.75 million undocumented farmworkers in the country. If Congress doesn’t move how will U.S. agriculture be affected?

“Agriculture, if Congress does nothing, will continue to be affected negatively. That’s become increasingly clear in recent years. The situation just gets worse and worse. We’re now in a spot where increasing numbers of farms must leave food to rot on the ground because they can’t find workers to pick it.

“I know the dairy industry has been struggling for years to find workers. The current immigration or worker procedures don’t contemplate anything to help the dairy industry, which requires year-round labor.

“Congress must make major changes. There’s no President that can fix this alone. The most a President can do is mend things that the edges. 

“Even if Obama’s plan helps, say, 500,000 farmworkers it doesn’t change the fundamental flaws that these folks must deal with. We aren’t opposed to what the White House has announced but we’ve never viewed it – nor has anyone else – as being dispositive in terms of resolving the problems resulting from dysfunctional immigration policies.”

Do you see this dragging into the 2016 elections and being a major issue there?

“Well, it could. We’ve been talking about this for at least 10 years. Back when I was the ag commissioner in North Dakota, we spent years in the (National Association of State Departments of Agriculture) working on this trying to find a resolution.

“There has been support for dealing with the agriculture component of this all along. The problem we’ve always run up against is no one in Congress wants to deal with just agriculture. They want comprehensive reform. There’s constant pressure to do all or none. And for the last few years, it’s ‘none’ that has been winning.

“I’m not holding my breath thinking this will be dealt with before a new President is sworn in. Sadly, history says this will go on and on.”

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